You may know it well: that pesky voice inside that keeps saying you aren’t smart enough, attractive enough, talented enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough. Enough! Psychotherapist and 2to3days partner, Susan Tomlinson, explores how to tame your inner critic.
We all have an inner critic. Some are louder and meaner than others, but unfortunately, it’s a part of what makes us human. Our critical voice and our propensity to focus on the negative is hard wired into our brain development.
“Teflon for positive thoughts and Velcro for the negative.”
In the words of American psychologist Rick Hansen, we are “Teflon for positive thoughts and Velcro for the negative.”
Why is this? The blame lies with our prehistoric ancestors. Essentially, our “too cautious minds” are stuck in Stone Age times. Our ancestors had to be wired for risk in order to survive, because, in the jungle, there were only two mistakes you could make. The first being, you thought there was a tiger in the undergrowth – but there wasn’t. And the second: you thought there wasn’t a tiger in the undergrowth – but there was.
Obviously, the first mistake is scary but followed with relief, while the second mistake could, of course, be fatal. In order to ensure our survival, Mother Nature, wants us to make that first mistake over and over again, in order to avoid making that second mistake even once.
This means that we are still unconsciously (and often constantly) looking out for that tiger in the jungle. In our modern world, where there’s no jungle, but too much technology and too little down time, we still focus on the negative as a response to cope with every day life.
In psychological terms, we call this the “negative bias” and although it might be part of our inherited brain development, the good news is that we know our brains can and do change throughout our lives. Neuroscientists have discovered what they call neuroplasticity which means that creating different behaviours and practices can literally change the wiring in our brain, meaning, in the case of the negative bias, we can learn to override it.
Recognising your inner critic
How we speak to ourselves is important. Continually berating ourselves for doing or saying the wrong thing, directly leads to a lack of confidence and a deeply negative sense of self. This means that we need to not only acknowledge the inner critic, but begin to build a relationship it.
So, how do we do that? First up, we have to learn to recognise its voice. Everybody’s will be different, but as the critic loves to give us a hard time for things it believes we didn’t do well enough, the word “should” can be one of its favourites. Equally, sentences beginning with the word “why?” might be part of its vocabulary - as in “why didn’t you do that better?”. The key here is to begin to recognise the critic’s “script.”
Once you learn to recognise that script, write it down and read it back to yourself, noticing how it feels to hear it out loud. Ask yourself - would you ever talk to a friend like that? I’m fairly sure the answer would be no.
Once we understand how the critic is talking to us, we can begin to notice what situations might trigger its arrival. Gathering as much information about our inner critic is crucial to working with it.
“Thank you for sharing Nigel, now leave me alone.”
Sometimes giving the critic a nickname and a character can be a useful way to distance ourselves from its power. Julia Cameron, who wrote, the famous self help book, The Artist’s Way, told The Huff Post: “I have an inner critic, a sensor, whom I call Nigel. Nigel in my imagination is a gay interior decorator, who is British. Nothing I ever do is good enough for Nigel.”
When our critic is especially loud and mean, giving it a character, means we can put some space between it and other, kinder parts of ourselves. We can accept that while that negative part might never go away, if we learn to understand that part of ourselves better, we can learn to live with it better.
Over time, we can see that, like all parts of ourselves, it comes from a good place. In the case of the critic, it’s often about trying to protect ourselves from failure or driving ourselves to do better.
There’s not much point getting into a dialogue with the critic when its voice is particularly harsh, but using the same simple retort in the moment, can be highly effective. As Cameron says to hers: “Thank you for sharing Nigel, now leave me alone.”
Susan Tomlinson works with individuals and groups from Create The Space in London.
If you would like to find out more about how to work effectively with your inner critic, drop her a line on firstname.lastname@example.org